Workplace literacy in the schools has evolved over the past three decades. In a 1971 speech delivered to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, USOE Commissioner Sidney P. Marland, Jr., launched career education in public schools. He declared that students need to understand a relationship between the subject matter they were required to learn in schools and the competencies required in a workplace setting. The infusion of workplace skills and experiences into content courses continued in the 1980s, primarily as educational programs mandated at the state level (Terry & Hargis, 1992).
Workplace literacy in the schools took on an economic focus in the 1990s in order to meet increased technological advancements and an international marketplace (Terry & Hargis, 1992). The most comprehensive guidelines for career education projecting into the 21st century were listed in What Work Requires of Schools, the report of the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS, 1991). The SCANS report directed the focus of workplace literacy beyond basic reading and math skills to include higher level thinking and problem solving activities in the following workplace competencies:
1. Communication and math skills.
The economic focus of workplace literacy also extended to adult literacy programs in response to the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS). According to the NALS report (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993), nearly half of all adults did not have the literacy and technological skills needed to compete for good jobs in the global economy. Further evaluation of adult programs revealed a curriculum emphasis on school subject matter rather than workplace and life skills (Moore & Savrianos, 1995). In order to answer the question of what life and workplace skills adults need, The National Institute for Literacy began the initiative, Equipped for the Future, with a consumer survey of students in various adult literacy programs (Stein, 1995). The students identified a need to perform a variety of tasks in the roles in which they operate within the three contexts of parent/family, citizen, and worker. They also identified the following four purposes for which they need literacy:
2. Thinking and problem solving skills.
3. Personal qualities of self-esteem and sociability.
4. Resource management of time, money, materials, and facilities.
5. Interpersonal skills of collaboration and leadership.
6. Information acquisition, use, and processing.
7. Understanding and designing complex systems.
8. Technology expertise (SCANS, 1991).
1. Literacy as orienting self-to physically and socially access self within the world.
2. Literacy as voice-to express one's ideas and have those ideas count in the world.
3. Literacy as means of independent action-to have self reliance, problem solving, and decision making for privacy and protection of self
4. Literacy as a bridge to the future-to meet changing demands of the world and workplace.
Another initiative for connecting workplace literacy demands and academic content knowledge was the school-to-work program, a program designed to prepare students for high-tech careers and lead them toward life-long learning. The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 provided use of work-based learning experiences to prepare students for high-tech careers, access to college or other training options, and high quality instruction that applied academic learning to realistic work related problems (Imel, 1995).
Workplace English instruction in high school English classes provided a context-specific environment in which students learned to read and write for the workplace as well as to connect academic content with real life experiences. This included (a) learning literacy skills for communication in the forms of letters, proposals, memoranda, documents, etc.; (b) using computers to gather and present information; and (c) reading and responding to literature (Boiarsky, 1997; Probst, 1990).
When instruction of literature in English class is limited to critical analysis of the work, many students who are not college bound see little connection of reading to real life and do not read the classics. As Boiarsky (1997) pointed out, students need to read to "react more sensitively to the human condition and the environment in which we live as well as to become literate and to sample literary classics" (p.77). Probst (1990) suggested five purposes for reading literature: (a) to know about self, (b) to know about others, (c) to know about texts or content learning, (d) to know contexts, and (e) to know about processes for making meaning.
The idea of connecting the academic content, literature, to real life experiences such as workplace literacy activities is also applicable to promoting lifelong learning in adult classes. Learning experiences using literature would effectively address the literacy purposes and many of the parent, citizen and worker roles identified by the adult students surveyed in the Equipped for the Future reform agenda (Stein, 1997). Reading literature could support adult learners in: (a) understanding more about the human condition to teach their children about right and wrong; (b) understanding more about the world, analyzing and reflecting on situations and information to make decisions, and using their voice to take action as citizens; and (c) understanding more about social interactions, relationships, and personal perseverance to perform as adaptive and productive workers.